We’ve reached the half way point of rehearsals. It’s a moment when things come sharply into focus. The shape of the show, the skill of the actors, the inventiveness of the creative team, the power of the music… and how little time is left to bring everything together.
Giving birth to a new musical is exhilarating, and exacting. The whole of our first week was spent with the company sitting in a semi-circle with music stands learning ‘the dots’ under the expert, ever creative tutelage of our musical director Jordan Li-Smith and our music supervisor David White. In permanent situ next to them is composer Matt Winkworth, ever ready to respond to the room with rewrites to the score. Changes in keys, harmonies, even total rewrites or whole new sections which are then printed overnight and given to the actors to learn anew in the morning.
It’s an intensive process, but a thrilling one. Matt’s score is irresistible. It veers from heart-thumping exhilaration to heart-stopping beauty in the space of a few bars with styles ranging from sung liturgy to Elgar-esque pomp to beat driven electronica, with influences ranging from Allegri and Arvo Part to Bjork and Steve Reich. And the tunes are proper earworms, we’re all waking up in the middle of the night singing them.
In week two we were joined by our choreographer Lucy Hind who liberated the company from their music stands and got them moving; improvising detailed and delicate sequences from the movements we use to interact with the digital world on a daily basis. The swipe of an iPhone screen, the tap tap tap of a keyboard, the thumb scroll through a Twitter feed. It’s a familiar physical language transposed to enthralling stage choreography.
The digital world looms large in our show. With Matt’s music, book writer Chris Bush is exploring how the internet is affecting us all. How our digital dependency and obsession is changing our relationships with our society, politics, celebrity, each other and ourselves. Why people hide behind online profiles to anonymise their opinions, what we mean by freedom of speech when so much public discourse seeks to shout opinions down, how we can possibly find truth in an era of fake news. It’s a whip sharp script, full of insight and wisdom and compassion that peers behind the headlines and social media profiles to shine a light on the individual, human stories that get overlooked in an ever more impersonal, globalised world. We’re now at the stage where music, movement and the actions of the play are starting to meld.
I’m hugely privileged to spend every day in a rehearsal room with a group of supremely talented people. Designer Lucy Osborne, lighting designer Oli Fenwick and video designer Nina Dunn have created a stunning stage design comprising more than 1,000 individual lights the size of iPhones that light up individually or en masse to conjure phones, TVs, advertising hordings, Facebook, tube trains, cityscapes. It’s a visually arresting and hugely technically complex attempt to encapsulate the internet on stage, and we’re in the midst of figuring out how it works and what it is capable of. Sound designer Dom Kennedy is working closely with the music department to extend Matt’s score into a joyous cacophony of pings and bleeps and alerts.
Derek Hutchinson, Che Francis and Rakesh Boury
Genesis Lynea and Bethzienna Williams
Maimuna Memun and Amy Booth-Steel
Of course the real heroes are the actors, who on a new musical need to learn complex harmonies followed by intricate choreography whilst inhabiting characters and offering ever evolving interpretations of the text, and then popping out for a costume fitting. Their talent and tenacity is a daily source of inspiration. They are brilliantly supported by our all-seeing, all-knowing, indefatigable stage management team who run the whole show and without whom we would all be lost in seconds flat.
Our title has raised some eyebrows. It’s a reference to Katie Hopkins’ regular claim that she will be martyred for her views. “I am the Jesus of the outspoken”, she told The Times recently, apparently without irony. But the show is not about Katie per se, it’s about what she represents. In a very angry, very divided world we are becoming ever more polarised and ever more oppositional. We are shouting ever louder. We write in capital letters, use ever more verbose adjectives to decry our opponents with insults and sarcasm and threats and as much venom as we can muster. Chris and Matt have created piece of musical theatre that takes a step back, takes a deep breath and tries to understand what’s happening to us.
It is an urgent piece of theatre, an important piece of theatre and an incredibly timely piece of theatre. If I do my job right it will also be a hugely entertaining, uplifting, exciting and moving piece of theatre.
I’m Joint Artistic Director of the new writing touring company Paines Plough and I’ve spent most of my career working on new plays. I’ve never lost my sense of excitement and privilege at being given the honour of directing a piece of work for the first time. Of creating the world premiere of something that may go on to be performed in different productions all around the world for many years to come. I feel that honour and responsibility keenly now.
There’s nowhere better to make new work than here at Theatr Clwyd. It’s such a beautiful location, and a singular, very special building and company. Few theatres have this level of skill in house, proper craftsmanship, knowledge and love of theatre in departments stretching from wardrobe to props to workshop. I love it here. I’ll be back in June when Paines Plough and Theatre Clwyd join forces to premiere three new plays in Roundabout, our state-of-the-art pop-up amphitheatre, which will then pop up in Edinburgh and on tour around the UK.
But before the world premiere of those three new plays, there’s a brand new musical to open here in North Wales. I’m heading back into rehearsals with excitement, anticipation and three weeks to go to get everything ready for opening night.
James is the joint Artistic Director of Paines Plough.
Opens April 20
Credit: Charley Wiles.